Black Jack volume 1


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9 (Tankōbon PB)

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry…

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary working miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who makes surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

These translated, collected adventures – available paperback and digital formats – begin with the frankly startling ‘Is There a Doctor?’, wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second – ‘The First Storm of Spring’ – tells the eerie, poignant tale of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so, what was he truly like?

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures, the enclosed “spare parts” start to distend the body, appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion requires the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. Many Japanese have a frankly unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection – for more search “the Hibakusha” – and this case is a much about stigma and position as wellbeing…

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate, they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth. Overcoming incredible resistance, Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors, he then builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern, I mean lacking a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’, she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when undertaking a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables before the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved true sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from, this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades-old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ before this first collection concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate some people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, battles of a prescribing Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Japanese Magical Realism to rival the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Mostly though, these are highly addictive tales of heroism; ones that that will stay with you forever.
© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Clifton volume 1: My Dear Wilkinson


By De Groot & Turk translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905469-06-9 (Album PB)

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – especially the French and Belgians – are fascinated with us Brits. Gosh, I wonder if that’s still the case…?

Whether it’s Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or even the further travails of Long John Silver, or the amassed amateur sleuths of the Detection Club, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles have cut a dashing swathe through the pages of the Continent’s assorted magazines and albums.

And then there’s Clifton

Originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for Le Journal de Tintin, the doughty troubleshooter first appeared in December 1959.

After three albums worth of short strip material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot left the magazine to join arch-rival Le Journal de Spirou and the eccentric comedy crime-fighter floundered until Tintin revived and repurposed him at the height of the Swinging London scene courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg. These strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

He was furloughed again until the mid-1970s when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois revived Clifton for the long haul, producing ten tales of which this –Ce cher Wilkinson: Clifton from 1978 – was the fifth.

From 1984 onward artist Bernard Dumont AKA Bédu limned De Groot’s scripts before eventually assuming the writing chores too until the series folded in 1995. In keeping with its rather haphazard but Diehard nature, Clifton resurfaced again in 2003, crafted by De Groot and Michel Rodrigue in four further adventures; a grand total of 26 to date.

The setup is deliciously simple: pompous and irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, ex-RAF and recently retired from MI5, has a great deal of difficulty accommodating being put out to pasture in rural Puddington. He thus takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, occasionally assisting the Government or needy individuals as a gentleman troubleshooter.

Sadly, for Clifton – as with that other much-underappreciated national treasure Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – he is keenly aware that he is usually the only truly competent man in a world full of blithering idiots…

In this initial translated adventure first seen in 2005 – and at last available in digital formats – the forceful personality is seething at home one night, reading ghost stories when a sequence of odd events culminates in both he and his nationally celebrated cook and housekeeper Miss Partridge witnessing plates of food and glasses of wine flying about and crashing to the floor.

Fortifying themselves with the remaining sherry, the staunch duo repair to their separate beds unaware that a very live presence has been spying on them and playing pranks…

The next day finds the perplexed sleuth at the town library, scanning the stacks for reports of similar phenomena and tediously regaled by one of the whippersnapper counter-staff who just happens to be an amateur and closet psychokinetic: demonstrably and smugly able to move small objects with the power of his mind…

With proof of a rather more rational explanation for recent events and an appropriate reference tome, Clifton bones up and is soon made annoyingly aware of stage performer the Great Wilkinson who is reputedly the world’s greatest exponent of the art of psychokinesis.

A quick jaunt to London in the old red sports car soon sees the former spy getting along famously with a diminutive performer who happily agrees to come down to Puddington and recce the Colonel’s troubled home. To be perfectly frank, the smiling showman is far more interested in meeting celebrated chef Miss Partridge…

A pleasant afternoon is interrupted by old associate Chief Inspector John Haig of Scotland Yard who is drowning in an uncanny mystery and desperately needful of a second opinion from MI5’s most self-congratulatory alumnus. Giant safes are going missing, seemingly plucked from buildings as if by mighty, invisible hands…

Thus proceeds a wickedly fast-paced romp with a genuine mystery tale at its comedic core. Clifton and Co fumble their way past roguish red herrings and through a labyrinthine maze of clues to the lair of a canny criminal mastermind with what seems the perfect MO. However, long before justice triumphs, the tinderbox temper of the suave sleuth is repeatedly triggered by clodhopping cops, obnoxious officials, short-fused chefs, imbecilic bystanders and a succession of young fools and old clowns all getting in the way and utterly spoiling the thrill of the chase…

Delightfully surreal, utterly accessible and doused with daft slapstick in the manner of Jacques Tati or our own Carry Onfilms (sans the saucy “slap ‘n’ tickle” stuff), this light-action epic rattles along in the grand old tradition of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim – or Wallace and Gromit and Mr Bean if you’re a callow yoof – offering readers a splendid treat and loads of timeless laughs.
Original edition © 1978 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1988 by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.

The Book of Human Insects


By Osamu Tezuka translated by Mari Morimoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-20-9 (HB) 978-1935654773 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Ideal Chiller to Disturb these Dark and Lonely Nights… 9/10

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contributions have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Osaka Prefecture on November 3rd 1928 and, as a child, suffered from a severe illness which made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired the boy to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while still at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest…

Tezuka never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way, Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not actually created, the Japanese anime industry.

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, his works range from the childishly charming to the unsettling – and even terrifying. In 1970-1971 he produced the stark and moody psycho-thriller Ningen Konchuuki for Akita Shonen’s Play Comic, detailing the inexorable rise of a truly different kind of monster for the burgeoning audiences who were growing up and demanding more mature manga fare.

This superb monochrome 364-page hardback/trade paperback and digital delight opens with ‘Spring Cicada’ as failed and broken designer Ryotaro Mizuno ponders the incredible success of golden girl Toshiko Tomura; a bright young thing who has just scooped a major literary prize for her first novel.

Across town, a broken-down derelict also toasts her success whilst in a lonely garret a girl hangs from the end of a noose…

Mizuno confronts Toshiko in her moment of triumph, telling her failed author Kageri Usuba has committed suicide. Their tense exchange is observed by muck-raking journalist Aokusa

Convinced he’s on to something, the reporter perseveres and discovers Toshiko is a modern renaissance woman: emerging from obscurity to become a celebrated actress while still in her teens, she graduated to directing before becoming an award-winning designer. Abruptly she metamorphosed again, writing the stunning novel The Book of Human Insects. Still in her twenties, there seems to be nothing the angelic girl cannot do…

Further enquiry leads the obsessed newsman to her desolate rural home where the uncanny genius presents an entirely different, almost wanton aspect. Moreover, she keeps there a very creepy waxwork of her dead mother…

Toshiko catches the professional voyeur and agrees to an interview, but before that meeting Aokusa is accosted by shambling drop-out Hyoroku Hachisuka, a once-prominent stage-director who imparts the true story of Toshiko’s resplendent rise to fame and fortune.

Once, the universally approved-of, wholesome girl was a small, timid creature who inveigled her way into his theatre company. Once there, she attached herself like a lamprey to the star, learning her ways and mannerisms. A perfect mimic, Toshiko not only acquired the actress’s skills but also seemed to suck out her talent and inspiration. When the former star quit, Toshiko replaced her…

She performed that same slow consumption with the entire company and then turned her attentions to the director…

Moreover, the seemingly helpless waif was utterly amoral, using sex, slander and perhaps even murder to achieve her ends, which were always short-term: she had no goals or life ambitions, but merely flitted from victim to victim like a wasp seeking its next meal…

Ignoring the warning, Aosuka persists, discovering promising writer Usuba once had a room-mate named Toshiko whom she accused of plagiarising her novel…

Intriguingly, the lonely writer’s recent suicide occurred in extremely suspicious circumstances…

During a TV interview, Toshiko accidentally meets Mizuno again. Revealed as one of her earliest victims, can he possibly be the only man she ever loved?

In ‘Leafhopper’ Aosuka uncovers another of Toshiko’s secrets when he meets for the first and last time her shady associate Arikawa – a murderous anarchist who cleans ups the lovely mimic’s potential embarrassments – just as she tries to renew her relationship with the bitter and far wiser Mizuno.

Toshiko also meets war criminal and right-wing “businessman” Sesson Kabuto who immediately discerns her true nature and keeps a fascinated but wary professional distance from her…

Toshiko operates almost instinctively and according to immediate desire, but she has a terrifying capacity to clean up any potentially damaging loose-ends. After seducing Arikawa she spectacularly removes him during a political assassination and uses the affair to promote her next book…

Meanwhile Mizuno spirals further into despondency until he meets a prostitute who looks like Toshiko and finally finds redeeming true love – of a sort…

Toshiko almost overreaches her abilities when she is arrested by South Korean security forces in ‘Longhorn Beetle’ but is rescued and forced into marriage by a man every inch her ruthless, remorseless equal. This propels her to even more inspired acts of perversion and survival – which consequentially endanger the wellbeing of everybody in Japan – before ‘Katydid’ brings the unique drama to a shocking, bloody, poignant and utterly unexpected conclusion…

Murder-mystery, Greek Tragedy, trenchant melodrama, serial-killer horror story and much more, this supremely adult tale has hardly dated at all since its release and offers a chilling image of those hidden invisible predators who have supplanted vampires, witches and werewolves in the dark corners of our communal consciousness.

The beautiful maiden as lure and amoral predator possibly began with this truly disturbing tale and the story is one which will stay with readers long after the final page is turned…

“God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka died in 1989 but with ever more of his copious canon being released in English there’s plenty of brilliant material for all ages, intellects and inclinations to admire and adore, so why not start right here, right now.

Accept no imitations…
© 2011 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2011 by Mari Morimoto and Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

Two Dead


By Van Jensen & Nate Powell (Gallery 13/Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1-50116-895-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Dark Winter’s Tale you must not miss… 9/10

It’s been a while since we covered a crime yarn and this new release looks like making a few well-deserved waves, so let’ go back a lifetime or two and look at events that have passed into history while regrettably remaining all too fresh, familiar and immediate… like any wound…

Before moving into screen scripting and writing comics and graphic novels such as Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, Cryptocracy and Valkyrie Beer Delivery – as well as established properties like The Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman and James Bond, Van Jensen worked as a crime reporter for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. It was there and while palling around with local cops that he first learned of this case. The facts never let go of him and, years later, with the stunning collaboration of multi award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell (March, Come Again, About Face, Any Empire, Swallow Me Whole, The Silence of Our Friends) the events were dramatized here as Two Dead.

Even after separating the True Crime nature of the story, this is a chilling and unforgettably potent crime noir examining institutional racism, police bias and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders through the lens of history. It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas where recently demobbed war hero Gideon Kemp is starting his new job as a police detective. It’s October 1946 and the FBI-trained family man just wants to put his past behind him and do good.

He cannot, however, escape the pressure of a crushing and tragic mistake made during his service that still haunts him, blighting his days and nights…

From the start, the new job is a trial. Secretly enlisted by Mayor Sprick, Gideon is supposed to fight a deeply entranced organised crime presence in the town as a detective, while secretly getting the goods on his own boss. Veteran old school cop Abraham Bailey hasn’t met a problem yet that couldn’t be solved with volleys of gunfire and – despite being popular with the white voters in town – he’s becoming a problem for the powers that be.

Just how much so, and what ghosts and demons drive the ethically-challenged hardliner, neither conspirator can truly guess…

Little Rock is prosperous, growing and segregated, with a strong but hidden Klan presence. Across the poverty-ridden tracks, the coloured citizens live separate lives. Esau Davis makes ends meet here running errands and taking bets for mob chief Big Mike. He is well aware of the dangers of upsetting – or even being noticed by – white cops.

Originally the police had tried recruiting blacks into the force, but as they kept turning up dead, the authorities eventually let the program drop. Now Esau’s war hero brother Jacob tries to keep the peace in their part of town with an unpaid, unarmed volunteer militia, but they’re no match for gangsters or self-righteous police looking for easy arrests. They are especially unprepared for gun-happy Chief Bailey, who has an obsessive hatred of all criminals, likes keeping trophies of all his “justified” kills, and never met a door he couldn’t kick down or anybody who wasn’t guilty of something…

Every player is tormented by their own ghosts, but as Kemp and Bailey warily test each other out while successfully dogging the footsteps of the murderous mobster – who has his own appallingly bloody peccadillo to assuage – an uneasy trust is formed. Rather than expeditiously doing the Mayor’s bidding, by-the-book Gideon stalls and prevaricates as the war of decency against crime escalates, exposing corruption among the city’s leaders and dragging in honest Jacob, who is soon just another gun in Bailey’s relentless war.

With blood running and the death toll mounting, Gideon and Jacob are powerless to head off a brutal confrontation. It seems no one can atone or win achieve redemption here…

The ending is one you won’t forget…

Rendered by Powell in sepia and black line utilising a style gloriously reminiscent of classic Will Eisner, Two Dead is a superb and upsetting thriller, made irresistibly compelling by Jensen’s deft use of language, gift for building suspense and multiple narrative perspectives and, like all the great noir tales, revels in a world of villains with no heroes to balance them…
© 2019 by Blue Creek Creative, LLC and Nate Powell. All rights reserved.

Maids


By Katie Skelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-368-4 (HB)

Sorry for the brief interruption. Disease and deadlines are things you just don’t dick with…

With Halloween pretty much on hold this year, our annual humour/horror fest has been pretty much decimated too. However, if you stretch a point, most of the recommendations over the next few days will qualify…

Illustrator Katie Skelly hails from Brooklyn by way of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and caught the comics bug early, thanks to her newsstand owner dad. Her Barbarella inspired series Nurse, Nurse began after graduating from Syracuse University with a BA in Art History and becoming a postgrad at City College of New York.

Thanks to her inquisitive insights, striking art style and potent narrative voice, Skelly has been the subject of many gallery shows and is a star on the global lecture circuit.

Her first graphic novel – again inspired by Jean-Claude Forrest but also horror-meister director Dario Argento – was My Pretty Vampire (2017), supplanted by the collection Operation Margarine and The Agency. All her works ask uncomfortable questions about the role and permitted position of women in society as seen through exploitation genres of mass entertainment, and that’s never been more effectively seen than in this “semi-autobiographical” tome (available in present-worthy luxury hardback and accessible eBook formats) recounting the true-crime story of the Papin sisters.

History says that on February 2, 1933, former convent girls Christine and Léa (working as maids for the wealthy Lancelin family in Le Mans) one night bludgeoned and stabbed to death Madame Léonie to and her daughter Genevieve. The case was open and shut but became a Cause Célebre in France after reports of the killers’ early lives and years of service and physical abuse became public. Intellectuals championed them and the case was cited as a perfect example of the dangers of inequality and privilege…

Here, Skelly brings her own incisive interpretation to the case, and it’s a little gem that you will find hard to put down and impossible to forget…
© 2020 Katie Skelly. This edition © 2020 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

London Inferno


By LF Bollée & Roger Mason (Markosia)
ISBN: 978-1-913359-80-5 (TPB)

There’s nothing better than a sharp and nasty noir crime caper and this chilling mini-epic – the result of a superb cross-Channel collaboration – is perfect proof of that.

Life is all about the promises we keep and the bonds we make, but which are the most important: the comradeship of best friends or the fierce passion of true love?

Laurent Frédéric Bollée was born in Orléans in 1967 and has been writing since he was twenty: comics such as Bruno Brazil, Terra Australis and ApocalyseMania as well as proper books too, should your inclinations stray that way…

Young Brit Roger Mason crafts the Mice series of graphic novels, drew stuff for 2000AD and first worked with Bollée on Mongo le Magnifique. Now safely ensconced in New Zealand he pushes pencils brushes and computer mice on film storyboards and other commercial art mainstays…

London Inferno is a smart and violent cop story with nasty psychological undertones used to highlight a classic noir scenario. John and Mark are hardened Vice coppers, always looking to take out the scum of the underworld and ready to give their lives for each other.

Mark is married to Valerie, but John knows it’s not a happy union. After all, he’s shagging her whenever Mark isn’t around, even in some extremely risky locations…

The unstable situation suddenly ends in the most horrific manner possible, when Valerie is murdered at a party, and John realises that despite all the witnesses, the killer they have in custody is not the perpetrator…

And thus unfolds a seamy sordid example of crimes of passion and vengeance taken, but in the end, who’s really the victim and who is truly guilty?

Rendered in stark and stunning monochrome, this is a feast for lovers of sophisticated crime thrillers that will delight the eyes and the mind, and art lovers can also enjoy a bonus section comprising a section on how the cover was created, as well as full creator biographies.

Bleak, uncompromising and splendidly amoral, this is a book you’ll enjoy over and over again.
London Inferno™ & © LF Bollée, Roger Mason & Markosia Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Question: Zen and Violence


By Dennis O’Neil, Denys Cowan & Rick Magyar (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1579-8 (TPB)

Denny O’Neil died on June 11th. It didn’t make the news or mostly anywhere. For comics readers of my vintage he was the voice of our generation, carrying us through some of the most turbulent times in world history and using his gifts to pass on a philosophy never before seen in comics. He utterly remade Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Superman. He created the relevancy movement, bringing social conscience back to comics for the first time since Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster were told to tone it down with the wife beaters and grasping mine owners…

He was a remarkably insightful and prolific writer and a nurturing, imaginative editor. Think of a hero or title: Denny probably made it better. We’ve been the poorer since his retirement, but now there’s no chance of one last hurrah…

One of DC’s best comics series of the 1980’s – and probably the closest to O’Neil’s personal beliefs – is criminally out of print in trade paperback format and still hasn’t made it to digital editions yet, but it’s something well worth tracking down.

The Question, as created by Steve Ditko, was Vic Sage: a driven, justice-obsessed journalist who sought out crime and corruption irrespective of the consequences. This Charlton “Action-Line Hero” was purchased by DC when the Connecticut outfit folded and was the template for the compulsive avenger Rorschach when Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons first drafted the miniseries that would become the groundbreaking Watchmen.

The contemporary rumour-mill had it that since the creators couldn’t be persuaded to produce a spin-off Rorschach comic, the company went with a reworking of the Ditko original…

An ordinary man pushed to the edge by his obsessions, Vic Sage used his fists and a mask that made him look utterly faceless to get answers (and justice) whenever normal journalistic methods failed. After a few minor appearances around the DC universe, Sage got a job in the town where he grew up.

Hub City is a hell-hole, the most corrupt and morally bankrupt municipality in America. Mayor Wesley Fermin is a degenerate, drunken sot and the real power is insane cleric and political advisor Reverend Jeremiah Hatch, whose hand-picked gang of “heavies” are supplemented by the world’s deadliest assassin, Lady Shiva.

Reuniting with Aristotle Rodor, the philosopher-scientist who first created his faceless mask and other gimmicks, Sage determines to clean up The Hub, but despite early victories against thugs and grafters, is easily defeated by Shiva, and left to the mercies of Hatch and his gang. A brutal beating by the gangsters breaks every bone in his body and – after shooting him in the head – the callous minions simply dump his body in the freezing waters of the river.

Obviously, he doesn’t die. Rescued by the inscrutable Shiva, but utterly crippled, Sage is sent into the wilderness to be healed and trained by O’Neil’s other legendary martial arts creation, Richard Dragon. A year passes…

It’s a new type of hero who returns to a Hub City which has sunk even lower into degradation. Sage’s old girlfriend is now the Mayor’s wife, Reverend Hatch has graduated from thugs to terrorist employees, and his madness has driven him to actually seek the destruction of Humanity. Will the new Question be sufficient answer to the problems of a society so utterly debased that the apocalypse seems like an improvement?

Combating Western dystopia with Eastern Thought and martial arts action is not a new concept, but the author’s spotlight on cultural problems rather than super-heroics make this series O’Neil’s most philosophical work, and Denys Cowan’s quirky, edgy art – inked with jagged precision by Rick Magyar – imbues this darkly adult, powerfully sophisticated thriller with a maturity that is simply breathtaking.

This is a story about dysfunction: Social, societal, political, emotional, familial and even methodological. The normal masked avenger tactics don’t work in a “real”-er world, and some solutions require better Questions…
© 1986, 1987, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island


By Edogawa Rompo, adapted and illustrated by Suehiro Maruo, translated by Ryan Sands & Kyoko Nitta (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-777-8 (HB)

Edogawa Rompo is revered as the Godfather of Japanese detective fiction – his output as author and critic defining the crime thriller from 1923 to his death in 1965. Born Tarō Hirai, he worked under a nom-de-plume based on his own great inspiration, Edgar Allen Poe, penning such well-loved classics as The Two-Sen Copper Coin, The Stalker in the Attic, The Black Lizard and The Monster with 20 Faces as well as many tales of his signature hero detective Kogoro Akechi, notional leader of the stalwart young band Shōnen tantei dan (the Boy Detective’s Gang).

He did much to popularise the concept of the rationalist observer and deductive mystery-solver. In 1946, he sponsored the detective magazine Hōseki (Jewels) and a year later founded the Detective Author’s Club, which survives today as the Mystery Writers of Japan association.

Although his latter years were taken up with promoting the genre, producing criticism, translation of western fiction and penning crime books for younger audiences, much of his earlier output (Rampo wrote 20 novels and lots of short stories) were dark, sinister concoctions based on the trappings and themes of ero guro nansensu (“eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical”) playing into the then-contemporary Japanese concept of hentai seiyoku or “abnormal sexuality”.

From that time comes this particular adaptation, originally serialised in Enterbrain’s monthly magazine Comic Beam from July 2007-January 2008.

Panorama-tō Kidan or The Strange Tale of Paradise Island was a prose vignette released in 1926, adapted here with astounding flair and finesses by uncompromising illustrator and adult manga master Suehiro Maruo.

A frequent contributor to the infamous Japanese underground magazine Garo, Maruo is the crafter of such memorable and influential sagas as Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon), Rose Coloured Monster, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, The Laughing Vampire, Ultra-Gash Inferno, How to Rake Leaves and many others.

This is a lovely book. A perfect physical artefact of the themes involved, this weighty oversized (262x187mm) monochrome hardback has glossy full-colour inserts, creator biographies and just feels like something extra special, whilst it compellingly chronicles an intriguingly baroque tale of greed, lust, deception and duplicity which begins when starving would-be author Hitomi Hirosuke reads of the death of the Taisho Emperor. Sadly, it still hasn’t made it into digital formats yet…

On December 26th 1926, Japan suffered a social catastrophe. The shock of losing the revered ruler reverberated through the entire nation. The trauma forced one failing writer to reassess his life. He finds himself wanting…

At another fruitless meeting with his editor Ugestu, Hitomi learns that an old friend, Genzaburo Komoda, has passed away. At college the boys were implausibly inseparable: the poor but ambitious kid and the heir to one of the greatest industrial fortunes in Japan. Perhaps it was because they looked and sounded exactly alike: doppelgangers nobody could tell apart…

The presumed cause of death was the asthma which had plagued the wealthy scion all his life and Hitomi, fuelled by self-loathing and inspired by Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial”, hatches a crazy scheme…

Faking his own suicide the writer leaves his effects to Ugestu before travelling to Kishu and immediately beginning his insane plot. Starving himself the entire time, Hitomi locates his pal’s grave, disposes of the already mouldering body and dons the garments and jewellery of Komoda. He even smashes out a front tooth and replaces it with the false one from the corpse…

His ghastly tasks accomplished, the starving charlatan simply collapses in a road where he can be found…

The news spreads like wildfire and soon all Komoda’s closest business associates have visited the miraculous survivor of catalepsy. The intimate knowledge Hitomi possesses combined with the “shock and confusion” of his miraculous escape is enough to fool even aged family retainer Tsunoda, and the fates are with him in that the widow Chiyoko has gone to Osaka to get over her loss. Of course she will rush back as soon as she hears the news…

However with gifts and good wishes flooding in, even Chiyoko is seemingly fooled and the fraudster begins to settle in his new skin. Just to be safe, however, he keeps the wife at a respectful and platonic distance. Comfortably entrenched, he begins to move around the Komoda fortune.

Hitomi the starving writer’s great unfinished work was The Tale of RA, a speculative fantasy in which a young man inherits a vast fortune and uses it to create an incredible, futuristic pleasure place of licentious delight. Now the impostor starts to make that sybaritic dream a reality, repurposing the family wealth into buying an island, relocating its inhabitants and building something never before conceived by mind of man…

Fobbing off all questions with the lie that he is constructing an amusement park that will be his eternal legacy, he populates the marvel of Arcadian engineering, landscaping, and optical science with a circus of wanton performers, living statues of erotic excess and a manufactured mythological bestiary.

He even claims that the colossal expenditure will begun healing the local economic malaise, but for every obstacle overcome another seems to occur. Moreover he cannot shift the uneasy feeling that Chiyoko suspects the truth about him…

Eventually however the great dream of plutocratic grandeur, lotus-eating luxury and hedonistic sexual excess is all but finished and “Komoda” escorts his wife on a grand tour of the wondrous celebration of debauched perversity that is his personal empire of the senses.

Once ensconced there he ends his worries of Chiyoka exposing him, but all too soon his Panorama Island receives an unwanted visitor.

Kogoro Akechi has come at the behest of the wife’s family and he has a few questions about, of all things, a book.

It seems that an editor, bereaved by the loss of one of his protégés, posthumously published that tragic young man’s magnum opus to celebrate his wasted life: a story entitled The Tale of RA

This dark compelling morality play is realised in a truly breathtaking display of artistic virtuosity from Maruo, who combines clinical detail of intoxicating decadence with vast graphic vistas in a torrent of utterly enchanting images, whilst never allowing the visuals to overwhelm the underlying narrative and rise and fall of a boldly wicked protagonist…

Stark, stunning, classically clever and utterly adult The Strange Tale of Paradise Island is one of the best-looking, most absorbing crime thrillers I’ve seen this century, and no mystery loving connoisseur of comics, cinema or prose should miss it.
© 2008, 2013 HIRAI Rutaro, MARUO Suehiro. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Last Gasp.

You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!: More Comics by Fletcher Hanks


By Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-606699-160-2 (TPB)

Although he was a pioneering auteur and prolific creator, the work of troubled artisan Fletcher Hanks (December 1st 1889 – January 22nd 1976) was all-but lost to posterity for decades following the Darwinian dawn of the American comic book. Happily, he was rediscovered relatively recently by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw!

Hank’s unique visual style and frankly histrionic manner of storytelling resulted in only 51 complete stories created over less than three years (1939-1941) – but those were during the make-or-break, crucially formative times that would shape the industry for decades to come.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Hanks was an artist plagued by a dependence on alcohol and a tendency to violence. Surviving on odd jobs and as a mural painter, he abandoned his wife and four children in 1930 and disappeared until the incredible commercial drive to fill comic book pages saw him resurface in 1939 as part of the Jerry Iger/Will Eisner production “Shop”. Here he generated whole stories (script, art, lettering and probably even colour-guides) for some of the most successful publishers of the Golden Age. All were fast-paced, action-packed, relentless blood-&-thunder thrillers, underpinned by what might well be hallucinogenic delirium…

Hanks is now globally prominent in art circles and regarded as a key Outsider Artist – defined by critic Roger Cardinal as an English-language equivalent to the French movement Art Brut or Raw/Rough Art: works created outside the boundaries of official culture. Jean Dubuffet connected the phenomenon especially and specifically to the paintings and drawings of insane asylum inmates but Cardinal extended the definition to include Naïve art, some Primitivism and sustained bodies of work by creators working at all fringes of the mainstream.

In his woefully short career, the impact of those 51 stories were further reduced since he only worked in a few returning characters. This book follows on from and concludes the complete works compilation begun in editor Karasik’s I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! (which I simply must track down and review too).

Presented in chronological order, this book contains seven Space Smith adventures – ‘Captured by Skomah!’ (Fantastic#1, December 1939), ‘The Martian Ogres!’ (Fantastic #2, January 1940), ‘The Leopard Women of Venus’ (#3, February), ‘The Thinker’ (#4, March), ‘The Hoppers’ (#5, April), ‘The Vacuumites’ (#6, May) and ‘Planet Bloodu’ (#8, July): a single tale of Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #1 (‘The Slave Raiders’, January 1940) plus a batch of red-blooded lumberjack yarns starring Big Red McLane: ‘King of the North Woods’, ‘The Timber Thieves’, ‘The Lumber Hijackers’, ‘The Sinister Stranger’, ‘The Paper Racketeers’, ‘Sledge Sloan Gang’, ‘The Monk’s War Rockets’ and ‘Searching for Sally Breen’ from the monthly Fight  Comics (#1, January 1940, and #3 through 9).

The incomparable Stardust the Super-Wizard (whose slick, sleek costume surely influenced Britain’s Mick Anglo when he redesigned Captain Marvel into All-English Marvel Man in 1954!) is stirringly represented by ‘Rip the Blood’(Fantastic #2 January 1940), ‘The Mad Giant’ (#4), ‘The Emerald Men of Asperus’ (#8) ‘The Super Fiend’ (#10), ‘Kaos and the Vultures’ (#12), ‘The Sixth Columnists’ (#14) and ‘The World Invaders’ (Fantastic #15, February 1941).

No violent genre was beyond Hanks and prototype sword-wielding barbarian hero Tiger Hart rousingly romped through the jungles of Saturn in ‘The Dashing, Slashing Adventure of the Great Solinoor Diamond’ in Planet Comics #2 (February 1940).

From early 1940, Daring Mystery #4 and #5 supply ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘Planet of Black-Light’, two exploits of brawny, clean-limbed Whirlwind Carter of the Interplanetary Secret Service, whilst Yank Wilson, Super Spy Q-4 performed much the same role for the contemporary USA in ‘The Saboteurs’ from Fantastic #6 (May 1940).

For me the biggest, most enjoyable revelation is the captivating batch of uncanny tales featuring the frankly indescribable Fantomah. The “Mystery Woman of the Jungle” – a blend of witch, goddess and reanimated corpse – used startling magic to monitor and defend the green places of the world against all manner of threats from poachers to mad scientists and aliens.

Her beguiling feats open with ‘The Elephants Graveyard’ (Jungle Comics #2, February 1940) and just get wilder and wilder, continuing with ‘The Super-Gorillas’ (#4), ‘Mundoor and the Giant Reptiles’ (#5), ‘Phantom of the Tree-Tops’(#6), ‘The Temple in the Mud Pit’ (#8), ‘The Scarlet Shadow’ (#11), ‘The New Blitzers’ (#12) and ‘The Tiger-Women of Wildmoon Mountain’ before ominously concluding with ‘The Revenge of Zomax’ from February 1941’s Jungle #14.

These stunningly surreal and forceful stories created under the pseudonyms Barclay Flagg, Hank Christy, Henry and Chris Fletcher, Charles Netcher, C.C. Starr and Carlson Merrick are a window into a different, bolder, proudly unconventional era and the troubled mind of a true creative force. Seen in conjunction with Karasik’s insightful introduction and the many early sketches and illustrations from before that too-brief foray into comics, these pages present an intimate glimpse of a fascinating man at a crossroads he was clearly able to shape but never grasp.

This is a magical book for both fans of classical comics and the cutting edge of modern art: and just in case you were wondering, the stories are weird but read wonderfully.

It Must Be Yours!!!

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.

The Spirit: An 80th Anniversary Celebration


By Will Eisner & various (Clover Press)
ISBN: 978-1-95103-805-2 (TPB)

It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the prime creative forces that shaped the comicbook industry, but still many of his milestones escape public acclaim in the English-speaking world.

William Erwin Eisner was born on March 6th 1906, in Brooklyn, and grew up in the ghettos of the city. They never left him. After time served inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he then invented the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in comics form released in a single book, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. All the tales centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue: a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing poor Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funny book and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner constantly pushed the boundaries of his craft, honing his skills not just on the legendary Spirit but with years of educational and promotional material. In A Contract With God he moved into unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary exploration of social experience.

Restlessly plundering his own childhood and love of human nature as well as his belief that environment was a major and active character in fiction, in the 1980s Eisner began redefining the building blocks unique to sequential narrative with a portmanteau series of brief vignettes that told stories and tested the expressive and informational limits of representational drawings on paper.

From 1936 to 1938, Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he conceived and drew the opening instalments of a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas,

Westerns, Detectives, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes – lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold – head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit – invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comic book insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. Despite the terrifying workload such a commission demanded, Eisner jumped at the opportunity, creating three strips which would initially be handled by him before two of them were handed off to his talented assistants. Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic whilst masked detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi), and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead strip for himself, and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. In 1952 the venture folded and Eisner moved into commercial, instructional and educational strips. He worked extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind.

In the wake of “Batmania” and the 1960s superhero craze, Harvey Comics released two giant-sized reprints with a little material from the artist, which lead to underground editions and a slow revival of the Spirit’s fame and fortune via black and white newsstand reprint magazines. Initially, Warren Publishing collected old stories, even adding colour sections with painted illumination from such contemporary luminaries as Rich Corben, but with #17 the title reverted to Kitchen Sink, who had produced the first two underground collections.

Eisner found himself re-enamoured with graphic narrative and saw a willing audience eager for new works. From producing new Spirit covers for the magazine (something the original newspaper insert had never needed) he became increasingly inspired. American comics were evolving into an art-form and the restless creator finally saw a place for the kind of stories he had always wanted to tell.

He began crafting some of the most telling and impressive work the industry had ever seen: first in limited collector portfolios and eventually, in 1978, A Contract With God.

If Jack Kirby is American comics’ most influential artist, Will Eisner undoubtedly was – and remains – its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape. Will Eisner went Home, went Back and went Inward.

The Spirit debuted on June 2nd 1940 in the Sunday edition of newspapers belonging to the Register and Tribune Syndicate. “The Spirit Section” expanded into 20 Sunday newspapers, with a combined circulation of five million copies during the 1940s and ran until October 5th 1952. This trade paperback and digital collection re-presents a selection of classic adventures from the original 12-year canon, in stark stunning monochrome, with five digitally recoloured by Laura Martin and Jeromy Cox. Furthermore, each episode is preceded by an essay from Industry insiders and unashamed fans.

Leading the charge and providing a fascinating breakdown on the history of the masked marvel is former publisher (one of 15 to date) Denis Kitchen, who provides ‘A Brief History and Appreciation of The Spirit before the Cox-coloured ‘Who is The Spirit?’ reveals how a battle of wills between private detective Denny Colt and scientific terror Dr. Cobraleads to the hero’s death and resurrection as the ultimate man of mystery…

Editorial wonder Diana Schutz deconstructs one of Eisner’s most metaphysically mirthful yarns as ‘No Spirit Story Today’treats us all to monochrome madness with a deadline crunch inspiring a Central City cartoonist to break the fourth wall.

Dean Mullaney then spills the beans over atomic era intrigue as Martin’s hues add bite to the 1947 armageddon spoof‘Wanted’, with the entire world as well as our hero hunting a little man with a deadly secret…

According to Bruce Canwell’s essay, Li’ Abner parody ‘Li’l Adam’ was part of a scheme between Eisner and Al Capp to mutually boost popularity of their respective properties. The jury’s still out, but there no doubt that the Spirit portion is one of the wackiest episodes in the gumshoe’s case files, unlike the moody, compelling tragedy of ‘The Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin’ (previewed by Charles Brownstein), wherein the ghostly gangbuster strives to convince a widow that she is not also a murderess…

Paul Levitz examines authorial inspiration in anticipation of a return to black & white and The Spirit’s battle against arsonist ‘The Torch’: a potentially passé romp rendered hilariously unforgettable by Eisner’s wry poke at advertising sponsorship, after which Beau Smith fondly recalls his mentor’s gift for teaching using modern magic realist western ‘Gold’ as his exemplar…

Coloured by Cox and discussed by Craig Yoe, ‘Matua’ is a deft and winsome tribute to myths and legends disguised as a poke at monster movies with the Spirit wandering the Pacific Islands and meeting an awakened colossal beast, after which Greg Goldstein focusses on ‘Sound’ as a monochrome adventure again takes a peek behind the curtain of a cartoonist’s life.

Eisner always had a superb team to back him up and here letterers Sam Rosen and Abe Kanegson combine with design assistant Jules Pfeiffer to make the wordforms the surreal stars of this picture show about another murdered pencil pusher…

Rounding out this tribute to eight tumultuous decades of Spiritual Enlightenment, is a Will Eisner Art Gallery of latterday sketches, pin-ups and covers by the master.

Will Eisner is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in American comics but it is too seldom that his incredible draughtsmanship and design sense get to grab the spotlight. This book is a joy no fan or art-lover can afford to be without, and is especially recommended for newbies who only know Eisner’s more mature works.

By the Way: Although Eisner started out utilising the commonplace racial and gender stereotypes employed by so many sectors of mass entertainment, he was among the first in comics – or anywhere else – to eschew and abandon them. In these more enlightened, if not settled, times, it’s nice to see a statement addressing the historical and cultural problems not to mention potential distress these outdated sensibilities might cause right at the front of the collection. So, if funny books can do it, how come statues can’t?

THE SPIRIT and WILL EISNER are Registered Trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc. Will Eisner’s The Spirit © 2020 Will Eisner Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All other material © its respective contributor. © 2020 Clover Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.